Many of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s paintings group into common themes. In the mid-1740s he had a run on an unusual motif showing Cleopatra dining with Mark Anthony, which he painted at least three times. The first two of those were commissioned twice, by the two most influential patrons in Venice, patrons who in their own way shaped his art, and that of contemporary painters including Canaletto. One of those patrons wasn’t even Italian, but the British Consul at the time.
Joseph Smith’s origins are obscure. Born in about 1682 somewhere in England, he arrived in Venice in about 1700, trading and dealing for the merchant bank of the then British Consul Thomas Williams. He succeeded in business and made himself a handsome fortune, becoming Williams’ partner, then spent his money on his three great passions: lavishly printed books, music, and paintings.
During the 1720s Smith started to collect paintings in his English-style Palazzo Balbi near the Rialto on the Grand Canal. The first of these were by Sebastiano Ricci, then considered to be the finest painter in Venice, among them being seven large canvases showing scenes from the New Testament.
By 1723, Smith was commissioning or employing the brilliant pastellist Rosalba Carriera, then at the height of her powers. Among her paintings which he acquired was probably her finest, this self-portrait as Winter, from 1730-31. He commissioned two copies, one of which he sent to a friend or business associate.
In about 1728, Smith started to commission the young Canaletto to paint local views for him, including at least six large canvases of the Piazza San Marco and its surroundings. In those works, his brushwork was unusually painterly, quite unlike the detailed and tight style of his other views.
Canaletto’s Piazza San Marco with the Basilica, Venice from about 1730-34 was painted rather later than the series for Smith, and was sold to a visitor to Venice, the Duke of Leeds Osborne, who took it back to England with him as a souvenir. In these later views, Canaletto paid much greater attention to detail again, and became commercially successful. He painted twenty views for the Duke of Bradford, twenty for Sir Robert Hervey, and seventeen for the Earl of Carlisle, for instance.
From around 1740 onwards, Smith seems to have sold more paintings than he commissioned, and those which were painted for him pandered to whims such as ancient Roman monuments and architectural details of buildings in Venice. In 1744, he was appointed the British Consul in Venice, a role which brought into contact with most important visitors, who seem to have found him unlikable: Horace Walpole, leading writer and politician, for instance, referred to him as the Merchant of Venice. Finally, in 1762, he sold most of the remainder of his collection to King George III.
Smith’s role in Venetian art was taken by Francesco Algarotti, who had been born in the city in 1712 and underwent scientific training in Rome and Bologna. He became an expert in what we’d now describe as Newtonian physics, and wrote the first account intended for women, Newtonism for Ladies (1737). Algarotti spent much of his life travelling overseas, and in 1740 was made a Count by Frederick the Great when he was briefly a member of his court.
In 1742, Algarotti proposed extending the extensive collection of paintings of Augustus III, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, kept in Dresden. Most unusually, this involved the addition of works of living artists, an idea which was far in advance of his time. To determine what commissions were necessary to accomplish this, he conducted an assessment of each artist’s preferred genres and style, then appears to have proposed subjects and themes which he felt were most suited – and almost universally contradictory. It didn’t help that, by the time that he made his proposals, Algarotti had been away from the Italian centres of art for almost five years.
Francesco Zuccarelli’s Cicero Discovers the Tomb of Archimedes from 1747 is an example of the sort of painting which resulted. This shows Cicero’s visit to the island of Sicily, when the Roman claimed to have discovered the location of the tomb, with the city of Syracuse behind.
Giovanni Battista Piazzetta painted The Death of Darius in about 1746, apparently just after Algarotti’s main round of commissions.
But it was Giovanni Battista Tiepolo who became most involved with Algarotti’s project.
In the mid 1740s, Tiepolo painted two accounts of Flora, the first being The Empire of Flora in about 1743. She is here seated in a chariot being drawn by winged cupids or winds, brazenly showing off her naked body like a down-market version of Venus. There are precious few references to classical accounts, or those of Botticelli and Poussin. This was commissioned by Algarotti for Augustus of Saxony, for whom Tiepolo had to insert the hanging garden and Neptune fountain which Lorenzo Mattielli had designed for Augustus’ residences.
In contrast, Tiepolo’s second and independent painting, of The Triumph of Zephyr and Flora from 1734-35 refers to Ovid’s account of Flora, thus Botticelli’s Primavera, with Zephyrus in flight with his arm round Flora, just about to crown her with a garland.
The clearest example of how Algarotti influenced Tiepolo is in four surviving paintings of The Banquet of Cleopatra made by the latter in the mid-1740s, when the patron was resident in Venice. This was originally commissioned by Joseph Smith, probably in about 1742, but Smith seems to have vacated his claim on the work in favour of Algarotti acting on behalf of Augustus.
Tiepolo’s small modello for The Banquet of Cleopatra, painted in 1742-43, is now in the Musée Cognacq-Jay, Paris. It shows Cleopatra banqueting with the Roman Mark Anthony in a rather run down loggia. Its background, with cypresses rising above an enclosed garden, is typical of Tiepolo, and its atmosphere casual and informal, apart from a few figures on the rooves of distant buildings.
Following Algarotti’s advice, Tiepolo transformed that into this large finished version of The Banquet of Cleopatra (1743-44), now in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. Its central figures remain similar, but the setting has changed completely. Gone are the surrounding rabble, making the banquet more formal. The distant gardens and blue sky have been replaced with elaborate architectural detail, on which there are now crowds of spectators. This isn’t the Tiepolo which we normally cherish for his colourful imagination and painterly panache.
Shortly after Tiepolo had completed that work to satisfy Algarotti’s aesthetics, he was commissioned to paint the same scene in fresco for the Palazzo Labia in Venice. We are fortunate that his modello for that work, The Banquet of Cleopatra made in 1746-47, is now in Stockholm University in Sweden. The figures have been transposed, and now sit outdoors in front of a garden, with a prominent obelisk in the distance.
For the final fresco of The Banquet of Cleopatra painted in the Palazzo Labia, Venice, in 1746-47, Tiepolo retained the background garden and obelisk, but moved the feast indoors, and added a gallery of musicians above the banquet.
When Algarotti died in 1764, he had almost accomplished the remarkable feat of turning Tiepolo into the first Neoclassical painter, probably for all the wrong reasons.
Francis Haskell (1980), Patrons and Painters, Art and Society in Baroque Italy, 2nd edn., Yale UP. ISBN 0 300 02540 8.